Address by Minister Pallo Jordan at the fund raising event for the Mdantsane library project, Mdantsane

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22 Nov 2005

Among the amaRharabe clans, living in the western borderlands of the early 19th century Xhosa kingdoms, there emerged a religious figure, Ntiskana, the son of Gabha of the Cirha clan. It is said that this young father, a person of some substance in his own community, began experiencing visions that exhorted him to convert to a new religion. After one particularly acute such experience, he went down to the river and washed off the red ochre with which the Xhosa people decorated their bodies and adopted this new religion.

Carrying a wooden cross of his own construction, Ntiskana began preaching about 200 years ago. As he had no bell, he used his voice to call his followers to prayer. The chant, known today as Ntsikana’s hymn, represented an interesting convergence : cultural change propagated through traditional expression. Like Muslim muezzin or azhan, Ntsikana employed a traditional mode of African cultural expression, to convey his message of change and his call to his people to embrace a new world outlook. Ntsikana’s visions, instructing him to read, authorities say, stimulated the drive for literacy amongst Christian Africans.

Mastery of the written word freed communications among people from the need for personal contact. It made it possible to communicate and to receive communication from some-one who was not there in person. It made it possible to commune with the present, the past and the future. Liberated from the constraints of time and space, the thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of those who could write acquired immortality. They became eminently transferable from one place to another, from one time to another, from one environment to another, from one people to another. Writing was probably the most profound cultural revolution experienced by humankind prior to the twentieth century. Ntsikana’s visions brought that revolution to the indigenous people of South Africa, changing them in ways even he could never have anticipated.

Books, consequently occupy an important place in the preservation and transmission of information, knowledge and experience. They are the most essential educational tool. Hence the importance we attach to libraries.

I would like to speak about a matter I regard as critically important : the development of a new library in the Mdantsane township, outside East London in the Buffalo City Municipality, Eastern Cape.

First, a few challenging but hard facts:

Mdantsane is the second largest township in the country after Soweto, yet it only has a satellite library run from the East London Public Library.

The Eastern Cape is perhaps the poorest province per capita in the country and Mdantsane is in one of the Poverty Nodes identified by the President.

The Eastern Cape also had the worst matric results last year. There is a connection!

Pose this question then to yourself – how can we really expect the matric results in the Eastern Cape to improve when the infrastructure is so weak, not only in terms of the under-resourced schools, but also in terms of the absence of community libraries?

The improvement of community libraries is a complex issue, but it represents a major challenge for the Department of Arts and Culture.

In 1994, we inherited a library system based largely on the cosy arrangements made in the four provinces of the old order. The old Cape, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal provinces, each had provincial library services which supported local public libraries, mainly located in the smaller white towns.

The provinces used their financial clout for the bulk buying of book stock and circulated the books among the local libraries. They also supplied support, co-ordination and professional services. The municipalities supplied the buildings (often subsidised by the provinces), the staff and the maintenance. This was an effective arrangement, but flawed in the very important sense that it was aimed at servicing the leisure-time reading habits of the white community. The big cities, such as Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town, operated their own library services, largely independent of the provinces, but also mainly aimed at the leisure-time reading activities of the white middle classes.

Only a few of the former “homelands” had anything more than embryonic library services, misleadingly described as “National” libraries of the various “homelands.”

There was nothing really worthwhile about this system; its purpose was to support the apartheid status quo. As late as the early 1990s, when censorship was finally being abolished, the Town Clerk (municipal manager) of a large verkrampte town in the then Eastern Transvaal, ordered the librarian to remove all books by the great Afrikaans writer Andre P. Brink because of Brink has authored books like “A Dry White Season”, “Chain of Voices”. You can imagine what the chances of that dorp getting books written by the late Chief Albert Luthuli or Sol Plaatje or Kwame Nkrumah!

However, libraries have great revolutionary potential. In the 19th Century, one of the greatest entrepreneurs, the Bill Gates of the era, was a Scottish-born industrialist called Andrew Carnegie. He grew up in desperate poverty and received nothing more than a basic primary school education before poverty sent him out to seek work as a very young boy. He walked the freezing streets of the city looking for warmth and learning. These he found in the public library, which he later described as his university. He later emigrated to the USA where he became one of the wealthiest industrialists and a leader of the steel industry. He never forgot his origins and, before he died, he established the Carnegie Foundation, which is one of the foremost philanthropic organisations in the world. It has been involved in poverty alleviation since the Great Depression of the 1930s and it has, at the dying command of its founder, supported the spread of libraries and literacy around the world. This includes very important work here in South Africa – for example, among its most recent projects are the new children’s library in Pietermaritzburg and the provision of circulating “book boxes” in rural areas of Mpumalanga.

Andrew Carnegie epitomised a sense of social commitment that put back into society what he gained from it. But it is not only capitalists who have recognised the role that libraries play in education and social upliftment: Cuba has one of the most comprehensive and deeply embedded community library systems in the modern world . It also has a higher literacy rate than the United States of America!

Libraries are one of the most cost-effective and individually empowering tools to create community upliftment and effect social transformation known to humans! Why? Because there are both collective and highly individualistic! A library is close to the people, as close as a clinic or a police station, but it opens the minds of the members of the local community, especially children, to the potential of the whole world – and indeed to the whole universe!

One strategically placed library can serve a number of schools, hospitals, old age homes and even prisons! The clientele of our community libraries has changed dramatically over the last ten to fifteen years. Once the tranquil retreat for middle class often elderly white readers , the libraries are now jammed with learners seeking to supplement their school learning with the wealth of knowledge they can access from encyclopaedias, reference books and literature. Many of them live in informal settlements where there is no electricity or space to study. The library offers them a safe haven to study where there is light and warmth.

Constitutionally, libraries, other than national libraries are the exclusive legislative competence of provinces. The effect of this provision is to make the old partnership arrangements between the provinces and the municipalities extremely difficult to manage and fund. Here is our biggest challenge, which is receiving serious attention from the National Council for Library and Information Services (also known as NCLIS) and from the Council of Culture Ministers, which is the forum for the national minister, myself and the MECs responsible for arts and culture in the provinces to meet and deliberate.

Last year NCLIS and the Department of Arts and Culture organised a highly successful symposium addressing the costs of developing a reading culture in South Africa.

The symposium revealed that VAT is a relatively small proportion of the overall cost of books. Major cost drivers are the cost of paper, currency fluctuations and the tendency of South African publishers to print small runs of expensive books, rather than to print lower quality books aimed at a mass market, as they do in India or Nigeria for example.

The success of the symposium resulted in it being repeated at the beginning of this year in Port Elizabeth, but with a different target audience - the blind and visually impaired communities. Here the thirst for knowledge is as great as it is in the broader community, but the challenges are greater and more specific. The visually impaired access literature through Braille (which they have to be taught to read) or through audio tapes. Reproducing conventionally published works for this target audience has occasioned copyright and intellectual property disputes and, together with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Arts and Culture is exploring ways of resolving this issue.

The Department of Arts and Culture is responsible for two key institutions servicing the needs of the Blind community. The one is here in Gauteng and is the printing works of BlindSA, a Non-Profit Organisation, that produces Braille literature in all official languages. The second is the South African Library for the Blind, based in Grahamstown which is responsible for circulating Braille and audio literature across the country. The library for the blind (also known as BlindLib) provides a tremendous service, but it is not well located to service all our official languages. For example, based as it is in the Eastern Cape, it has difficulty attracting readers for its audiotape programmes who are proficient in languages other than English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa.

One of our main aims is to create synergies between the facilities in Gauteng (where it is easy to access persons proficient in all languages) and in the Eastern Cape where the expertise and the infrastructure is. We also wish to develop more extensive outreach programmes for BlindLib.

This is where we get back to the Mdantsane Library project. There are no facilities for the visually impaired in Mdantsane, outside the hospitals. The new community library we are planning to develop there will offer a full range of services to both the visually impaired and the sighted communities. This is in line with our policy of mainstreaming disability. Let all come together in a library: school children, young and adult learners, the elderly, the infirm and the visually impaired.

We aim to develop the reader services in Mdantsane in such a way that the library is more than a facility behind four walls, but an active living part of the community that reaches out into all parts of the community. And the purpose of the function this evening is to ask you to join with us in a partnership to develop this library which we hope will be a pilot for transforming libraries across the country.

As the purpose of this event is fundraising, I hope that you will be motivated by the spirit of Andrew Carnegie and support this vital library project as generously as possible.

I thank you